Tasting Notes: Avenues

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Alinea, the seventh best restaurant in the world and the best restaurant in North America, is, without a doubt, first among equals in the dazzling gastronomic capital that is Chicago.  However, if I were going to choose among our plethora of towering fine dining destinations, I’d say Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago is a close second.  It shouldn’t be surprising since the Chef de Cuisine at Avenues, the mega-talent Curtis Duffy, was Grant Achatz’s second-in-command at Alinea’s opening in 2005.  But if Achatz’s cuisine at Alinea is like the best of Harold Pinter-boldly intellectual, complexly layered, trafficking in big themes and ideas (his Escoffier tribute dish at my recent spring 2010 dinner captured both the complex history of gastronomy and the limitless potential of its future in one brazen, memorable plate)-Duffy’s cuisine at Avenues is like the best of Stephen Sondheim:  cerebral, thoughtful, intricately and exquisitely crafted, but seemingly effortless, and yes, like mellifluous musical pieces on a plate.  (I couldn’t resist using theatrical metaphors, so sue me). I had two recent dinners at Avenues – in the spring when I brought endearingly exacting New Yorker friend Hedy (who had the chandelier-sized cojones to question Wylie Dufresne to his face about a dish, but that’s a story for another blog post) and then in the summer when BFF Debra and our travelin’ buddy Reva, both accomplished world travelers and consumers of fine goods, joined me at dinner.  Both times, I got to say, I was blown away (and my highly discriminating dinner companions as well).

At both dinners, I had variations of Duffy’s signature King Crab dish (which I heard was the most buzzed-about dish among the ones served at the recent James Beard Awards dinner, no mean feat in a room full of demanding palettes) as the first course:  unapologetically salty steelhead roe, kalamansi bits, mint, etc. lay on top of a “lace” or “glass” sugar crust which you broke to mix these ingredients in with the succulent king crab pieces and a cooling cucumber broth waiting below.  There was the surprisingly interactive element of the dish but there was also the even more astounding combination of flavors in your bite:  all gradations of sweetness (from sugar to plump seafood) and tartness (from the kalamansi fruit to the salty roe); all kinds of textures (fleshy, crusty, soft bubbly, liquidy).  It was a dish that was confident and meticulously thought out.  In the spring dinner, a beautiful piece of luxurious salmon belly was paired with a sweet-tart apple milk and whipped chlorophyll (I wasn’t really sure what exactly comprised it, but I remembered a sweetish-mintish flavor): the fish, fresh and flavorful, was the undisputed star of the plate, with the liquid elements adding, calibrating, expanding various flavor notes on the seafood.  In the summer dinner, the highlight for me was a perfectly grilled wagyu beef, pleasurably decadent, served with a complementary short-rib topping, fresh Australian black truffles, and a savory pistachio flan.  The ingredients were stellar in their own right, but together evoked pastoral visions of wide-open fields and meadowlands.  Speaking of ingredients, I was really impressed by Duffy’s thoughtful, sometimes provocative, always successful combinations of ingredients:  for example, amaranth and sunflower seeds with a grainy broth; strawberries, Thai black pepper, and mascarpone cheese in a dessert, both during the summer dinner. And Duffy’s plating of his dishes was consistently exquisite in composition, almost painterly, masterful but not show-offy.

Service at Avenues was always impeccable and flawless (and started off with a highly civilized champagne service, which I adored), but my only nitpick was probably more of a marketing nature:  at both times, my table lowered the age range of the dining room.  Sure, it’s not cheap to dine at Avenues, but it isn’t at Alinea as well, and tons of young professionals with disposable income to spend on fine food flock there.  Hopefully, this segment of the dining population would stop thinking of Avenues as a hotel restaurant, but rather embrace it as magnificent dining destination that just happens to be located in a hotel (and hey, the Peninsula isn’t something to sneeze at, people!)

Avenues is at The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior Street.

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One Response to “Tasting Notes: Avenues”

  1. pisanie eseju Says:

    Doskonałe ujęcie zagadnienia, wiele wnoszące do tematu.
    Niestety, nie ze wszystkim mogę się zgodzić,ale i tak gratuluję autorowi.

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